The CIA Just Let a Man Smuggle Uranium On a Plane — But They Have a Pretty Good Reason

On August 21, United States agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport arrested Patrick Campbell, a 33-year-old man from Sierra Leone, for carrying uranium in the soles of his shoes. Campbell ultimately intended to exploit his mining connections to smuggle yellowcake uranium into Iran despite international sanctions. Yellowcake uranium, or U3O8, has trace amounts of radioactivity and is necessary to begin the enrichment process for nuclear fuel or weapons. It seems that the CIA believes Iran is continuing to clandestinely research enrichment of uranium, possibly to continue its nuclear program under the radar.

Iran, however, did not initiate the offer. Rather, the CIA had set up a sting operation in May 2012. The CIA expended so much time and energy in this lengthy sting operation that it can hint at operations Iran may actually use in attempts to procure uranium, circumventing crippling, U.S.-led sanctions.

Campbell responded to an advertisement on a website called Alibaba.com, an online market for international trade. The advertisement purported to be from an American broker representing interested parties in Iran. Campbell affirmed that he had previous experience selling uranium to places like China and Ecuador, stating that he could easily disguise the uranium by mixing it with chromite ore. In this guise, he worked with the CIA operatives to arrange the shipment of the yellowcake uranium in drums from Sierra Leone to Bandar Abbas, an Iranian port.

However, Campbell first had to consent to meeting a broker in Miami, where he agreed to bring a sample of the yellowcake uranium in question for a purity analysis. Campbell managed to smuggle the uranium into the U.S. by placing it in plastic bags, which he inserted inside the soles of his shoes. This allowed the CIA to initiate Campbell's arrest at JFK International during his layover from Paris to Miami, allowing them to file a criminal complaint against him in Florida. Law enforcement agents also found a contract outlining the sale and delivery of the uranium on his USB drive, which the CIA broker presumably told him to bring as well.

Campbell has already had his first court appearance in New York on August 22. He could face as many as 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The sting operation obviously seemed like a credible, tractable offer for Campbell. But it seems credulous enough that someone arranging uranium sales to Iran would base him or herself out of the United States, let alone request that they smuggle the uranium onto U.S. soil. The improbability of this aspect of the arrangement aside, the logistics of Campbell's agreement sheds some interesting insight into how the CIA believes Iran is trying to circumvent sanctions.

Although the CIA has concluded that Iran is currently not trying to pursue a nuclear bomb and dismantled its nuclear weapons program several years ago, the sting operation indicates that the CIA also believes Iran is clandestinely importing yellowcake uranium for enrichment. Based on the sting operation, it is reasonable to assume that Iran is targeting individual contacts in uranium-rich countries to engage in illicit imports disguised as more innocuous minerals.